Monday, March 17, 2008

136. Music of the Great Tradition -- 36:Grounded Rounds

As Shai Burstyn's essay (see previous post) raises issues of special relevance to the traditions I've been exploring, I'll be rooting around in his text just a bit more. Though his background is traditional historical musicology, not ethnomusicology, he demonstrates an awareness of the "ethnic" context that I find especially heartening:
Examples of Malakkan music making, among others, show that canonic singing, harmonically reducible to a stationary triad, is prevalent in non-European cultures. Some medieval European examples exhibit related traits. Rounds may be found in contemporary European folk polyphony, such as the East Lithuanian sutartine. It is therefore arbitrary to argue the unique historical position of Sumer on the ground of the fortuitous hard fact that it is the only such composition we possess. Since Gerald specifically defines Welsh and Northumbrian polyphonic singing as indigenous, attempts to elucidate his meaning must assume an oral tradition and should also consider the possibility of improvisation [p. 140].
Since Burstyn mentions the Sutartine, let's take this opportunity to compare some examples with the Sumer canon. While the Lithuanian rounds aren't exactly improvised, they are certainly excellent examples of an oral polyphonic tradition as rooted in peasant life as the music so colorfully described by Burstyn's Gerald. The sutartine Išjos brolutėlis is considerably simpler -- and also more dissonant -- than the Sumer canon, but the basic idea seems quite similar. I'll refer you to the website created by Skirmantė Valiulytė, where it has a page of its own, complete with both notation and audio clip. Here's another example, from the same website: Ko tu kad berželi. The notation is a bit tricky to decipher, since it's the melody on the second staff that takes the lead.

If the Sumer canon, with all its many ramifications for the history of early "Western" polyphony, can be related so convincingly to "Old European" traditions in Wales and Lithuania, can we take things a step farther by going all the way back to the (alleged) roots of the (alleged) "Great Tradition" in Africa? In other words, can anything similar be found among the Pygmies and Bushmen? Do they too sing canonically, in something resembling a round? My answer is simple: yes, of course they do. Here's one example of a Pygmy "round," sung by three Mbuti women, as recorded in the Ituri Forest by Hugh Tracey: Amabele-o-i-ye. (From the CD, On the Edge of the Ituri Forest, SWP 009/HT 03). (Be patient, as it takes a little while for the round "proper" to begin, on the words Amabele-o-i-ye.) The Bushmen can also sing canonically, as in the following example, as transcribed by Nicholas England [“Bushman Counterpoint,” Journal of the International Folk Music Council 19, 1967].
The Bushmen example is particularly interesting, as the second part responds at the interval of a fourth below, in a form that music theorists would call a "tonal" answer, something encountered far more often in "learned" (two syllables) music than anywhere in the oral tradition. Note also the presence, on line three, of a pes, i.e., an independent part "grounding" the canon much as the pes does in the Sumer example.

I'll leave you for now with Burstyn's remarkably perceptive concluding remarks:
In spite of accumulating research concerning the relations between non-learned oral and learned written musical traditions in the middle ages, major reference works and recent histories of Western music still betray, by and large, a strong bias towards reliance solely upon the written sources. As is becoming increasingly clear, this stance is bound to leave unanswered many crucial questions relating to the influence of medieval oral musical traditions on the written heritage, and to afford only partial, possibly distorted, understanding of the documented music.

Handschin recognized that Sumer, "not being in the line of 'normal' evolution as reflected by musical theory, cannot exclusively be subjected to criteria taken from this quarter."' F urthermore, he made the correct assessment that "try as we may to insert the Summer Canon into the historical process, some degree of isolation will remain in any case... because.. .our historical knowledge is beset with gaps, and this most of all in the domain from which the Summer Canon comes, i.e., that of nonlearned [two syllables] music." Recognizing the paramount importance of non-learned traditions for a better historical understanding of medieval music may, through closer attention to the methods and findings of ethnomusicology, lead in time to answers to vexing questions concerning the origins of chordal formulations and the detailed ways in which chordal perception came to be expressed in harmonically-pregnant melodic formulas.

No comments: